His sin was public. The scandal great. His wife was gutted by the betrayal. Media exacerbated the shock as his children feared going outside where flashing cameras waited on the sidewalk. His church erupted in pain, grief, and stunned disbelief. The house was sold, the divorce done, the trial concluded, and everyone slowly limped forward.
As months went by, Christ’s love flowed over the broken family. The children’s sports events were always attended by parents who cheered for them just as passionately as for their own sons and daughters. The wife was provided flexible work to help her raise her children unhindered. Men from the church sought out the children, investing into their lives with love and comfort. The family learned to do without their beloved father and husband. His chores were divided among the children. Their prayers remained constant for the man who lived far away, who never once called or visited.
Then one day, when life had reached a new normal and laughter had returned, his call came. He wanted to come back. “God has been working in my heart, and I want to come back and begin to repair all the damage I have caused. I am sorry.”
The Repentance Problem
The family is dazed. Mother and children each deal with the news differently, divided on how best to proceed. The community is rocked…again. But this time, the river that flowed warm with love and support is now icy. “He doesn’t get to just come back as if nothing happened!” The repentance of the returning sinner creates a problem.
Sometimes, the biggest obstacle to repentance and reconciliation in the face of visible and egregious sin is the injured community who has been delivered a double wound. Not only did these friends and neighbors experience personal betrayal by the offender, they were “vicarious victims” as they stood by and witnessed the indescribable suffering of a family who belonged to their church and community—one of their own.
Receiving Back a Repentant Sinner
How is the church to deal with an offender who repents and returns to the community he betrayed?
While not entirely clear if the apostle Paul is referring to the sinful man addressed in 1 Corinthians 5, or if the situation in 2 Corinthians 2 addresses a different issue, but apparently someone had wronged the church in Corinth. As a result, some type of church discipline had occurred, and the result was repentance on the part of the sinner. The church, now challenged with a “repentance problem,” must learn to walk out restoring the offender in the face of reluctance by some of its members. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians, instructs the church to receive back the sinner because the punishment has successfully accomplished what was intended—repentance (2 Corinthians 2:6). Paul calls the church to offer forgiveness to the offender himself, expressed through comfort and love (2 Corinthians 2:7-8).
When relationships have been shattered, and people badly hurt, restoring an offender is exceedingly difficult. How is it possible?
Reconciliation before Restoration
An important first step requires a willingness by the community to view the now repentant sinner as a member of the family once again.
Reestablishing the familial bond shines a bright light on the duties for everyone involved. Family members with broken relationships are obligated to pursue reconciliation by making “every effort to live in peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). While reconciliation is not in any one person’s control, by God’s grace each person has the ability to repent of and confess their own sinful words, actions, and attitudes. Every individual is free to seek and offer forgiveness to those with whom they are in conflict. It takes two people to reconcile, but only one to pursue reconciliation.
The offending brother has an opportunity, even a duty, to assist the process of his own restoration by pursuing his injured brothers and sisters (Matthew 5:23-24). Repentance is meant to be communicated to those who have been sinned against, and a full confession to God and others is a step of loving obedience.
The offended community is also called to assist the process of restoring the offending brother by lovingly and gently confronting the sin which has yet to be personally acknowledged in private conversation (Matthew 18:15). Both the offender and the offended work together to heal the wounded family of God.
Then another question arises:
Why is it that those who have been most profoundly sinned against often find it easier to forgive and receive back a repentant sinner that those who have been witness to the devastation?
In my experience, immediate family and friends often long for and wait for the return of the sinner. They have left “room for God’s wrath” (Romans 12:19) in the hopes that God will work in that person’s heart and life and grant repentance (2 Timothy 2:25). Those who most love the sinner keep looking, much like the father who kept watch for the return of the prodigal son in the parable of the two sons (Luke 15:11-32). But the community, injured twice, often fails to be desirous of and watchful for the return of the offender. As a result, the sinner’s return is met with a mixed response.
A Third Kind of Pain
Sometimes, the return of the offender to the community triggers a third kind of pain. This pain is difficult to identify. The need to forgive the sinner who has caused so much harm confronts injured parties with unresolved and unforgiven wounds that existed long before the public scandal. Personal betrayals long since forgotten are brought into sharp focus when a repentant sinner comes home.
“He doesn’t get to just come back as if nothing happened” are words that echo pain from the past. When reconciliation with a repentant sinner is unwanted, and anger remains intense at the returning brother, it is important to search the heart for other betrayals that have never fully healed.
An Opportunity to Heal
“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). If you are the offending brother returning to the community, confession to those impacted by your sin is a necessary ingredient for reconciliation and restoration. If you are a member of the community locked in judgment and bitterness, talk it out with another believer, and then talk it out with the offender.
When God brings a sinner back, what a beautiful opportunity exists to share in the happiness of the One who rejoices in the return of the one wandering sheep (Matt. 18:13).
Join the Conversation
What is more difficult for you—to forgive the person who directly sins against you or to forgive the person who hurts someone you dearly love?